Director Interview: Chad Freidrichs on THE CINEMA WITHIN

THE CINEMA WITHIN is the newest documentary from Chad Freidrichs (THE EXPERIMENTAL CITY and THE PRUITT-IGOE MYTH). Through interviews with the late David Bordwell, editor Walter Murch, and psychologists and neuroscientists, the film explores how and why films make sense to us. THE CINEMA WITHIN will make its North American premiere at the DC/DOX festival this June. We spoke with Freidrichs, who directed, co-produced, and edited the film, about the science of film editing, cognitive film theory, and the history of cinema.

Science & Film: What was your initial interest in the neuroscience of film editing?

Chad Freidrichs: I used to teach filmmaking as Stephens College in Missouri, and I used to teach editing, amongst many other classes. While researching for that class, I came across a bunch of research by people like Walter Murch, and other people associated with cognitive film theory, about these ideas that come up in the film. I incorporated those into my class. I did that lecture so many times. It was called the Continuity Lecture, I talked about the importance of continuity editing, the way it's set up, why films are done the way they are. The reason why I talked about it so much is because it is so essential to the production of television and film, especially fiction television and film that we have today. And so, it raises the question always, why do we have we have? Basically, in the 1910s this system was established, why hasn't it changed? You look at all the other art forms that have evolved since the 1910s, they change quite a bit, but films look pretty much like they did in the 1910s in terms of editing. Now, we have other kinds of things that we've added, jump cuts, all kinds of other cool effects, but the basic grammar of film hasn't changed. And that intrigued me back when I was teaching at Stephens, and that question is still captivating me to this day. I had this idea that I would somehow, sometime like to make a film on that subject. After THE EXPERIMENTAL CITY, I was casting around for ideas, and that idea came up. So, I started researching for about a year the psychology of cinema.

S&F: Can you tell me more about cognitive film theory?

CF: David Bordwell is associated with the start of it. Around the early part of the 2000s, you started to see more and more psychologists and neuroscientists approaching film as a scientific endeavor. And so that's where you start to see these scientists who we portray in the film develop their ideas and their experiments.

S&F: And David Bordwell just passed away.

CF: I feel very fortunate to have met the man. He was the most pleasant, wonderful person. Just so kind, thoughtful. We did an incredible interview; he gave me like three and a half hours in his 70s. His work that really inspired me was a book Post-Theory where he and another editor had a series of essays. Post-Theory really kind of took on that idea that we can approach films empirically and approach them almost as a scientist would. That really resonated with me, I read that when I was in undergrad. Man, I loved David Bordwell. That guy was so cool. His approach is so broad. He wanted to promote the historical perspective, but he also looks at it from a what might be called a cognitive perspective. And I think those two were linked with him. He viewed the history as emerging, at least in part, not in a determined fashion, but something that was certainly influenced by the psychology of human beings looking at other human beings. Just in the basic idea of eyeline match in film, just like somebody look off screen, we're curious about what that person is looking at.

S&F: There's some talk particularly from the researcher working in Turkey who you portray in the film about the ways in which early cinema was playing with these techniques related to editing. Are there particular films where you feel like filmmakers were working out these techniques and how and why they work?

CF: Georges Méliès’s films are a great example of the illusion of action. That was a very, very early instance of action, the importance of action being recognized. If you look at his earliest films, he didn't have action, he just had cuts. There would be a blanket put over a woman and then a cut without much of an action at all, and you could see the jump. But as he evolved in his style, you start to see more and more action and the cuts become more and more invisible.

It wasn't until about the 1910s that all of these various techniques, maybe like six or seven of them, combined into a system. Bordwell and others talk about how that comes out of the Hollywood system. That's language we have today. That is our basic cinematic grammar, right there.

S&F: What I got from your film is that one of the reasons why that hasn't changed is because somehow, intuitively or not, that style corresponds to the way that our brains perceive the world.

CF: I think so. That's the argument coming from these scientists. There are practical reasons why filmmakers adopt these techniques too: it's very predictable–you can kind of go shoot a scene in a certain way, break it down a certain way, and know that you're gonna have some options when you come back to the editing room. But the question is, why does it cut together smoothly? What does that mean, cut together smoothly? And that's where it ties into this idea of having a foothold in our basic psychology.

S&F: It's really interesting to think about something filmmaking that was developed before people were studying the brain in the way they are today, and how it might be studied now to sort of reverse engineer an understanding of human perception.

CF: Yeah, I think that's a really good way of putting it. What you have is filmmakers who are working intuitively. That's how I work most of the time, I don't have kind of set rules about how I work, I just kind of try a bunch of different options, and then see which ones work, after a while show it to other people, see how I feel about it, see how they feel about it. I think most artists work on an intuitive level. And then eventually, if you scale that up to hundreds or thousands of artists, there's going to be some commonalities there. And there are sometimes very compelling reasons as to why things work, so that's where the scientists come in. They're trying to give a grounding for why those things work.

I think what's interesting about Murch, in particular, is that he made that prediction that there would be a blink synchrony between people watching a film if they're interested, if they're engaged with the film, and that's precisely the result that research came up with. He's working intuitively as an artist, but he's also thinking like a scientist. He has a very analytical mind. He was able to in a way reverse engineer it, where he approached it as an artist, looked at his own response, looked at others', and then came to the conclusion that blinking is reflective of the way that these people are thinking. That's really incredible. That was one of the greatest intellectual breakthroughs in film, how he came to that on his own.

S&F: How did making a film about this subject matter influence the way that you wanted to make this film?

CF: I wanted it to be well edited! When editing this film, I was always aware that hopefully there would be other filmmakers watching this, and they're going to be looking at the editing. But ultimately, and Murch talks about this and others as well, ultimately the story lets people in and they forget about the editing; it becomes invisible if it's well done.

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